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Thursday, 30 April 2020

Fanny Boscawen, bluestocking hostess (1719-1805)

Fanny Boscawen by Allan Ramsay (1749)  © Croome Park NT/Lionel Matthews
Fanny Boscawen by Allan Ramsay (1749)
© Croome Park NT/Lionel Matthews
Fanny Boscawen (23 July 1719 – 26 February 1805) was a bluestocking hostess and writer. Her husband Edward commissioned Robert Adam to design the interiors for their home, Hatchlands Park, Surrey.

Early years

Frances Evelyn Glanville was born on 23 July 1719 at St Clere, near Wrotham, Kent. Frances, known as Fanny, was the only daughter of William Evelyn and his wife Frances Glanville, a great niece of the diarist John Evelyn. Her father took her mother’s name on their marriage by Act of Parliament, at the same time as inheriting her fortune.

Fanny’s mother died in childbirth and her father remarried a few years later. Fanny spent much of her childhood staying with relatives - an aunt, Mrs Gore, who lived at Boxley near Maidstone; at Wotton in Surrey with Sir John Evelyn, the grandson of the diarist, and his wife Anne Boscawen; and with Sir John’s son John and his wife Mary Boscawen, his first cousin, a daughter of Hugh Boscawen, 1st Viscount Falmouth.


Admiral Edward Boscawen from the painting  by Sir Joshua Reynolds from An Historical   Journal of the Campaigns in North America  by Captain John Knox (1914)
Admiral Edward Boscawen from the painting
by Sir Joshua Reynolds from An Historical
 Journal of the Campaigns in North America
by Captain John Knox (1914)
It was at the home of John and Mary Evelyn that Fanny first met Edward Boscawen (1711-1761), Mary’s brother, in 1738. Edward was a captain in the navy. Fanny later wrote a letter that alluded to these ‘when you and I loved one another and told it only by our eyes.’1

When Edward returned after three years active service in the war against Spain, he became MP for Truro and was made captain of the Dreadnought. He resumed his courtship of Fanny and they were married on 11 December 1742. They lived in George Street, Hanover Square, London.

Edward and Fanny were very happy together and had five children: Edward Hugh (1744), Frances (1746), Elizabeth (1747), William Glanville (1749) and George (1758).

Hatchlands Park

Hatchlands Park © A Knowles (2014)
Hatchlands Park © A Knowles (2014)
In 1746, Fanny rented a small house in the country, in Beddington, Surrey, and in 1747, Edward and Fanny moved to a new London address, 14 South Audley Street.

In 1749, Edward and Fanny bought Hatchlands Park, near Guildford, in Surrey. It was an estate that Fanny had set her heart on some time before. Fanny wrote in her journal on 10th August 1748 that she had ‘made no enquiries, my heart still fixed at Hatchlands.’2

Again, on 23rd November 1748 Fanny wrote:
I shall wait for the charming summons at Englefield Green, where I propose to reside again this summer, Hatchland (which I still think of) being neither sold nor saleable.3
Edward and Fanny spent four happy years at Hatchlands together before Edward was once more called away on active service.

In 1757, they commissioned a new house at Hatchlands with interiors designed by Robert Adam.

Adam fireplace in the Drawing Room, Hatchlands from The architecture of Robert and James Adam by AT Bolton (1922)
Adam fireplace in the Drawing Room, Hatchlands
from The architecture of Robert and James Adam by AT Bolton (1922)
A successful naval career

Edward’s naval career meant that both during their courtship and after their marriage, Edward and Fanny spent many months apart. Fanny kept a journal to keep Edward in touch with what was happening at home.

Edward proved himself to be a very able naval commander. He was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue in 1747 and appointed Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty in 1751. (Admiral’s wife p146) He rose to Vice Admiral in 1755 and Admiral in 1758. Edward is particularly remembered for his successes in the Siege of Louisburg (1758) and the Battle of Lagos (1759).


Edward died at Hatchlands on 10 January 1761 after an acute attack of typhoid fever. Fanny was distraught. Edward was buried at St Michael Penkevil in Cornwall, in a tomb designed by Robert Adam, and with an inscription written by Fanny herself and ending with the words:
His once happy wife inscribes this marble – an unequal testimony of his worth and of her affection.4
Hre friend Elizabeth Montagu wrote to her husband a week after Edward’s death:
I thank God her mind is very calm and settled; she endeavours all she can to bring herself to submit to this dire misfortune. I know time must be her best comforter, so that I oppose her lamentations rarely and gently, but when they continue long, I set before her the merit of her five children, the want they will have of her, and the comfort she may derive from them.5
Blue-stocking hostess

Edward left his entire fortune to Fanny. She sold Hatchlands and moved back to London, to 14 South Audley Street, where she gained a reputation as an excellent letter writer and conversationalist and became famous for her bluestocking assemblies. Her guests included Elizabeth Montagu, Dr Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Elizabeth Carter and Hannah More.

You can read more about the bluestocking circle on my earlier blog here.

Elizabeth Montagu wrote:
I look upon it as a fortunate omen to begin my New Year in Mrs Boscawen’s company. She is in her conversation everything that can make the hours pass agreeably. I must be happier, and I should be better for her friendship.6
Elizabeth Montagu from a print on display in Dr Johnson's House Museum
Elizabeth Montagu from a print on display
in Dr Johnson's House Museum
What was Fanny Boscawen like?

In Admiral’s Wife, Cecil Aspinall-Oglander wrote:
Though even Fanny’s dearest friends can never have called her beautiful, her vivacious little face and attractive figure, her level brow and restful wide-apart eyes, her ready wit and subtle understanding, her captivating manner and complete lack of self-consciousness were utterly irresistible.7
Fellow bluestocking Mrs Montagu described Fanny in a letter dated 1757:
She is in very good spirits, and sensible of her many felicities, which I pray God to preserve to her; but her cup is so full of good, I am always afraid it will spill. She is one of the few whom an unbounded prosperity could not spoil. I think there is not a grain of evil in her composition. She is humble, charitable, pious, of gentle temper, with the firmest principles and with a great deal of discretion, void of any degree of art, warm and constant in her affections, mild towards offenders, but rigorous towards offence.8
Hannah More referred to Fanny in this excerpt from her poem, The Bas Bleu; or, Conversation:
Long was society o’er-run
By whist, that desolating Hun;
Long did quadrille despotic sit,
That Vandal of colloquial wit;
And conversation’s setting light
Lay half-obscured in Gothic night.
At length the mental shades decline,
Colloquial wit begins to shine;
Genius prevails, and conversation
Emerges into reformation.
The vanquish'd triple crown to you,
Boscawen sage, bright Montagu,
Divided, fell; - your cares in haste
Rescued the ravag'd realms of Taste.9
Hannah More from Memoirs of the life and correspondence  of Mrs Hannah More by William Roberts (1835)
Hannah More
from Memoirs of the life and correspondence 
of Mrs Hannah More by William Roberts (1835)
Family sadness

Losing her beloved husband was not the only loss that Fanny had to bear. Three of her five children died before her: William was drowned in 1769, Edward died in 1774, and Frances Leveson-Gower, to whom she was particularly close, died in 1801. In 1803, her daughter Elizabeth’s husband, Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort, also died.

Fanny had a close friendship with her cousin Julia Sayer (née Evelyn) with whom she corresponded regularly until Julia’s death in 1777. Fanny continued to correspond with Julia’s daughter, her god-daughter Frances Sayer, who became her closest companion in the latter years of her life. It was Frances Sayer who collected and saved Fanny’s letters.


Fanny died on 26 February 1805 at her home in South Audley Street, London. She was buried in her husband’s tomb in Cornwall.

The inscription on her grave reads:
Here lie the remains of the Honourable Frances Boscawen, daughter of William Evelyn Glanville Esq of St Clere in the County of Kent and relict of the right Hon Admiral Boscawen to whom she was a faithful and affectionate wife for eighteen years and by whom she had five children, whom she most carefully and tenderly educated: Viz Edward Hugh Boscawen, member of parliament for Truro who died at the spa in Germany July 17th 1774 aged 29 years. Frances, the wife of Rear Admiral the Hon John Leveson Gower who died July 14th 1801 aged 55 years, Elizabeth, married to Henry, 5th Duke of Beaufort who survived her. William Glanville Boscawen who was unhappily drowned at Jamaica 21st April 1769 aged 17 years: A Lieutenant in the Navy and George Evelyn Boscawen third Viscount Falmouth who survived her. Her long and well spent life in the observance of the purest and most exemplary piety and in the practice of every Christian virtue was terminated on the 26th day of February 1805 in London in the 86th year of her age. She was endowed with an uncommon and remarkable strength of understanding and in society, she is thus most truly described by a contemporary author: ‘Her manners are the most agreeable and her conversation the best of any Lady with whom I ever had the happiness to be acquainted.’10
1. Aspinall-Oglander, Cecil, Admiral's Wife, Being the life and letters of The Hon Mrs Edward Boscawen from 1719-1761 (1940)
2. Ibid
3. Ibid
4. Ibid
5. Ibid
6. Ibid
7. Ibid
8. Climenson, Emily J, Elizabeth Montagu, The Queen of the Blue-Stockings Volume 2 (1906)
9. More, Hannah, The Works of Hannah More Volume 5 (1835)
10. Findagrave website - entry for Frances Evelyn Glanville Boscawen

Sources used include:
Aspinall-Oglander, Cecil, Admiral's Wife, Being the life and letters of The Hon Mrs Edward Boscawen from 1719-1761 (1940)
Climenson, Emily J, Elizabeth Montagu, The Queen of the Blue-Stockings Volume 2 (1906)
Eger, Elizabeth, Boscawen (née Glanville), Frances Evelyn (Fanny) (1719-1805), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, online edn 23 Sept 2004)
Knox, Captain John, An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America Volume 1 (1914)

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Could a Regency widower marry his wife's sister?

A fashionable wedding at St George's Hanover Square in 1841 from Life In Regency and Early  Victorian Times by EB Chancellor (1926)
A fashionable wedding at St George's Hanover Square
in 1841 from Life In Regency and Early 
Victorian Times by EB Chancellor (1926)
I started investigating this question because I came across a blog post saying it was illegal for a man to marry his dead wife’s sister. Yet I knew from my research for What Regency Women Did For Us that Maria Edgeworth’s father had married his wife’s sister after his wife had died. Had the marriage been illegal or was I missing something?

The short answer

During the Regency period, the marriage between a widower and his wife’s sister, or between a widow and her husband’s brother, was valid but voidable. It was forbidden under ecclesiastical law but not illegal until the passing of the Marriage Act in 1835. It could be voided or annulled if successfully challenged by any interested party, at any time during the marriage, provided both husband and wife were still alive. 

The long answer

Forbidden Marriages

According to ecclesiastical law, a widower could not marry his wife’s sister and a widow could not marry her husband’s brother as these marriages were ‘within the prohibited degrees.’

These ‘marriages within the prohibited degrees’ were based on those marriages forbidden in the Bible and were laid out in A Table of Kindred and Affinity in The Book of Common Prayer (1662).1

A man may not marry his:
1. Grandmother
2. Grandfather’s wife
3. Wife’s grandmother
4. Father’s sister
5. Mother’s sister
6. Father’s brother’s wife
7. Mother’s brother’s wife
8. Wife’s father’s sister
9. Wife’s mother’s sister
10. Mother
11. Stepmother
12. Wife’s mother
13. Daughter
14. Wife’s daughter
15. Son’s wife
16. Sister
17. Wife’s sister
18. Brother’s wife
19. Son’s daughter
20. Daughter’s daughter
21. Son’s son’s wife
22. Daughter’s son’s wife
23. Wife’s son’s daughter
24. Wife’s daughter’s daughter
25. Brother’s daughter
26. Sister’s daughter
27. Brother’s son’s wife
28. Sister’s son’s wife
29. Wife’s brother’s daughter
30. Wife’s sister’s daughter
A woman may not marry her:
1. Grandfather
2. Grandmother’s husband
3. Husband’s grandfather
4. Father’s brother
5. Mother’s brother
6. Father’s sister’s husband
7. Mother’s sister’s husband
8. Husband’s father’s brother
9. Husband’s mother’s brother
10. Father
11. Stepfather
12. Husband’s father
13. Son
14. Husband’s son
15. Daughter’s husband
16. Brother
17. Husband’s brother
18. Sister’s husband
19. Son’s son
20. Daughter’s son
21. Son’s daughter’s husband
22. Daughter’s daughter’s husband
23. Husband’s son’s son
24. Husband’s daughter’s son
25. Brother’s son
26. Sister’s son
27. Brother’s daughter’s husband
28. Sister’s daughter’s husband
29. Husband’s brother’s son
30. Husband’s sister’s son
This is hard work to digest! Put simply, there were three groups of people a man could not marry:
1. Close blood relations: grandmother, mother, aunt, sister, daughter, niece, granddaughter.
2. The wife of the male equivalents of these relations: grandfather’s wife, father’s wife, uncle’s wife, brother’s wife, son’s wife, nephew’s wife, grandson’s wife.
3. Close blood relations (as in 1 above) of your wife.

Similarly, a woman could not marry:
1. Close blood relations: grandfather, father, uncle, brother, son, nephew, grandson.
2. The husband of the female equivalents of these relations: grandmother’s husband, mother’s husband, aunt’s husband, sister’s husband, daughter’s husband, niece’s husband, granddaughter’s husband.
3. Close blood relations (as in 1 above) of your husband.

Mourning full or opera dress  from La Belle Assemblée (1806)
Mourning full or opera dress
from La Belle Assemblée (1806)
The problem of not being able to marry your dead wife’s sister

The problem was that the sister of a deceased wife was often the most suitable person to help look after the widower’s children, but she could not live as a single woman in her brother-in-law’s house without risk of scandal and she could not marry him because ecclesiastical law forbade it.

Not everyone thought that this restriction was right. John Fry argued that marriage with a deceased wife’s sister was both fit and convenient in The Case of Marriage between Near Kindred (1756).

It was a problem that only affected the upper classes of society. In a debate on the law of marriage – prohibited degrees - in the House of Commons in 1847, Stuart Wortley stated:
As to the lower orders of society, they are quite incapable of comprehending the considerations of refined delicacy on which the law has been defended; and during an inquiry which lasted for more than two months I did not meet with one man or woman in humble life who considered marriage with a deceased wife's sister improper.2
Valid but voidable

Though forbidden by ecclesiastical law, if a marriage within the prohibited degrees took place – assuming a member of the clergy was willing to marry them – it was valid unless successfully challenged by an interested party while both marriage partners were alive.

In the debate in the House of Commons in 1847, it was recorded:
It was well known that, before the Act of 1835, marriages within the prohibited degrees, and among them marriages of men with sisters of their deceased wives, were not actually void, but merely voidable.3
Before the 1835 Marriage Act, marriages within the prohibited degrees were constantly at risk of being voided. This was obviously a big deal where children were concerned as if the marriage were voided, it made them illegitimate and could rob them of their inheritance. The only time limit on such a challenge seemed to be that both parties were still alive. 

Examples of voidable marriages that were valid

Richard Lovell Edgeworth, author (1744-1817)

Richard Lovell Edgeworth  from Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1821)
Richard Lovell Edgeworth
from Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1821)
The author, Maria Edgeworth, had three stepmothers and two of them were sisters. Her own mother died in 1773 when Maria was five and her father remarried, in the same year, to Honora Sneyd. When Honora died in 1780, Richard Lovell Edgeworth very promptly married Honora’s sister Elizabeth. The marriage took place after banns and went unchallenged. Elizabeth died in 1797 and Maria’s father promptly took a fourth wife, Frances Beaufort (who was younger than Maria).

Matthew Boulton, manufacturer and entrepreneur (1728-1809)

Matthew Boulton from The Making of Birmingham by RK Dent (1894)
Matthew Boulton from The Making of
by RK Dent (1894)
Birmingham manufacturer Matthew Boulton married Mary Robinson, a distant cousin, around 1756. Mary died, childless, within a few years of their marriage. About ten years later, Matthew married Mary’s younger sister Anne, although Anne’s brother was against the match.

Rear Admiral Charles Austen (1779-1852)

Jane Austen’s brother Charles married Frances Palmer in 1807. He married Frances’s sister Harriet in 1820, after Frances’s death.

The 1835 Marriage Act

The 1835 Marriage Act sought to remove the uncertainty over whether a voidable marriage would at some point become void. I was fascinated to read that the original intention of the Bill had simply been just that – to set a time limit on challenging a marriage within the prohibited degrees so that the children did not live in fear of their parents’ marriage being overturned.

What was proposed was that all existing marriages of people within the prohibited degrees should be questioned within six months of the Act and new marriages within two years of the date of the marriage.4

At some point during the debate, the terms were changed making all the existing marriages legal and all subsequent marriages void.

Marriage abroad

After the 1835 Act had been passed, the only legal way for a widower to marry his wife’s sister was to go abroad. It was generally believed this would be valid, although such marriages were still frowned upon by many.
The law of this country recognised a marriage as valid if solemnized according to the law of the place where it occurred; and, consequently, unless the Statute of 1835 constituted a personal incapacity-—as some contended, but as, he thought, it did not —a marriage solemnized abroad might effectually evade the law.5
A long battle for a change in the law

The Marriage to a Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill was first introduced in 1842 and was repeatedly raised in Parliament during the Victorian period, but it was not until 1907 that a man could marry his deceased wife’s sister. It was not until 1921 that the female equivalent was allowed, in the Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act.

1. The list appears on the last page of John Baskerville’s 1762 reprint of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
2. Law of marriage – prohibited degrees Hansard 13 May 1847 Commons Sitting
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

Sources used include:
Bailey, Martha, The Marriage Law of Jane Austen’s World, JASNA Volume 36, 1 Winter 2015
Book of Common Prayer (1662) republished 1762
Family Search website, Staffordshire Church Records
Knowles, Rachel, What Regency Women Did For Us (2017)
Tann, Jennifer, Boulton, Matthew (1728-1809) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn May 2007, accessed 5 Oct 2012)